The Community Food Movement: Seminar highlights disconnect between local government & food security
The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food…
A report on the food justice seminar, University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute. 24 September 2015.
ONE OF THE SPEAKERS at the September 2015 University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute seminar on food justice was the University of Sydney’s Professor David Schlosberg.
Speaking of the disconnect between local government and urban food security, David acknowledged that local government in the metropolitan region has taken an interest in community gardening. But, he went on, citing the City of Sydney as an example, their support of community gardening is more about gardening as a hobby than about food security.
I want to say that I agree with David’s overall assessment of local government attitude to community gardening. Having been a consultant to local government on developing policy to enable community gardening I too find that it is viewed more as a recreational activity and land is allocated to it much as it is to tennis courts and football fields. There is little by way of a food security, let alone a food sovereignty approach to be found.
Lacking: the right staff
Most local governments have no one on staff savvy about food security or urban agriculture. Decisions on allocating land for community gardens are taken either by planning or park management departments. Here, though, we find another disconnect. This time it is a disconnect between the staff.
While David is right that local government usually views community gardening as a hobby, there are sometimes staff within council that view it in food security/food sovereignty terms. I know this because I was one of them when I was community garden coordinator at the City of Sydney. I was also the proverbial voice in the wilderness on food issues there.
I have encountered other local government staff in the same situation. Most would be employed in council sustainability departments. They are cognisant about food security/food sovereignty but the councils they work for are not, and that attitude is institutionalised. When there is opportunity those lone voices might talk about food issues but, as lone voices they can do little to change the institutional attitude.
The only thing that can change that attitude would be a policy on food. City of Melbourne has one and it would be an interesting study to investigate whether that has led to much change in their approach and action. When a policy is introduced, local government can put staff time and budget behind it and things can happen. This has been the story of the introduction of policy on community gardening.
It is unlikely a policy would arise from among local government staff or elected councillors. It is more likely it would come through citizen demand. Sometimes, initiatives that appear to come from within local government originate outside of it. An example is the City of Sydney’s Sydney City Farm. The City has trumpeted the city farm far and wide, however it was the initiative of a community organisation. The City adopted it after the Lord Mayor and other councillors were convinced of its desirability and then council more or less took over the idea from the community association.
Food fairness and food security/food sovereignty-savvy staff have to deal with the internal disconnect in their say-to-day work. Not all staff support initiatives like community gardens. I recall a landscape architect who believed that community gardens had no place in city parks even though this person was happy to look over plans for gardens. Others, fortunately, can be very supportive.
Low-income councils an exception
An exception to the reported local government avoidance of food security is found among some local governments with low income residents.
A few years ago, for example, Blacktown Council in Sydney’s west hosted a seminar – Securing Our Food Future – attracting staff from various councils, food advocacy practitioners and community workers. Speakers described initiatives in food security that they were taking and the day was useful in that it brought together people from the different sectors not only to network but to go away with the knowledge that, despite how they sometimes feel, there are others tackling the same kind of problems elsewhere.
The Macarthur Food Security Project on Sydney’s far south western fringe, another low income region in part, provides an example of stimulating community gardening and food distribution schemes within an overall food security context.
Local government attitude towards food issues can be seen in the City of Sydney’s enewsletter. The items on food in the edition current at time of writing were to do with starting seedlings and growing in vertical gardens, with a workshop offered in the latter.
This is helpful in that it encourages people to become interested in growing food. But what is missing is any larger context for offering these how-to ideas, such as building the City’s food security or improving the free choice in foods and control over family diets that comes with food sovereignty. I’m not saying City of Sydney is alone in this and I don’t want to be too critical of what is a good idea.
Why this food security/food sovereignty context is missing is more than not having staff savvy about it. It is that for the most part local government eschews responsibility for the food security of its citizens. Generalising here, I want to make it clear.
It will be interesting to see if the City of Sydney’s new resilience manager includes food in their remit. It is hard to see how they aim to build resiliency without including it and, if it is missing, it will suggest a linited view of what community resilience is. We wait and see.
When Fiona Campbell (disclosure: she is my partner) started work as Randwick Council’s sustainability educator she quickly realised that building community resilience had to include food. Building on an existing community demand for food growing education, she developed courses in organic and forest gardening and added national, food-related events such as Fair Food Week and International permaculture Day into the schedule of council’s community resilience program. These now form part of a successful program in which Fiona provides community education in the skills needed in food security and food sovereignty although the council has no policy on food.
Most councils do not engage their communities in this way and that is unfortunate because experience shows that this is a superior form of public relations than that done by public relations people because it involves direct contact with communities.
Other than engaging in public education and applying pressure to councils I don’t see how they will come to address food issues in a serious way. I see too few examples of that pressure coming from within councils simply because they do not hire the people with the relevant knowledge and experience sets and prefer to push food security to other levels of government.